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This Youtube video depicts a Sami woman castrating a reindeer by biting off the testicles (although the moment suprême is not shown explicitly): Laplander Reindeer Castration (warning: video depicts animal suffering, and could be not safe for work unless you work in an abattoir). The video description states it is a Traditional Laplander reindeer castration from a film on the Laplander reindeer herding ritual.

I found a textual description in the book People of eight seasons: The story of the Lapps, by Ernst Mankel, Nordbok AB, 1975:

And the stranger who has accompanied the sita through thick and thin thinks that what is happening now looks more barbaric than any ancient historian could depict it — the manner, that is, not the actual principle, which in ancient times was practiced on many a male child. The great, tough animal lies helpless on its back or side with its head pressed against the earth and held fast by the herdsman's foot on the front branches of the antlers and a firm grip on the long main branches — levers in the herdsman's hands to counteract the strength in the animal's neck. While one man thus holds the bull fast, another — the operator — gets down on his knees behind it and puts his hands and head between its back legs, grasps the testicles firmly between his fingers and — bites, first one, and then the other. They snip off like a large gooseberry or a plum, one snip each and then the pouch is massaged a little. And a härk, an ox, is released and trots off to the other animals."

The skeptic that I am, I searched on. I couldn't find anything related to reindeer, but I found this Google Answers thread about sheep, which states (with sources) that shepherds do hold the testicles with their teeth, but then use a knife to cut off the testicles:

They would hold the testicles tight underneath, slit the skin holding the testicle in, put their mouth down and get hold of the testicle with their teeth, lift it up a bit, slice it off with the knife in their other hand and then spit the testicle on the ground.

(...)

I doubt it was done differently, as in literally biting them off without the aid of a knife, since a human's teeth are not nearly adequate enough to make that kind quick amputation necessary to keep from crippling an animal or preventing it from bleeding to death before the task was completed (not to mention the enormous infection and mortality rate this would have created).

(...)

In summary, it does appear that some farm animal castrations were "teeth assisted", if that makes sense, but quite unlikely, for obvious reasons, dependent upon human teeth alone

Finally, the Google Answers link is inconclusive, as are other sources I have been able to find online. Sheep are not reindeer, although I would be surprised if a reindeer's testicles are easier to bite off than a sheep ones.

Is it possible for a human to bite off a reindeer's testicles?

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I can't watch the video right now, but if it actually depicts the procedure being done do you think the video was faked in some way? –  rjzii Jul 19 '13 at 20:14
    
I have heard the claims several times too. That the Sami used to castrate the reindeers with their teeth. It does sound a bit extreme, but animal handling have historically been a bit extreme. –  Wertilq Jul 19 '13 at 21:21
    
@Sancho The physical possibility is the only link I'm skeptical about. If it's possible, I do believe that they actually do or did do so. –  gerrit Jul 20 '13 at 14:27

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

1. Did or do (Sami) reindeer herders castrate reindeer by biting off the testicles?

No they don't and (probably) never did.

They used to half-castrate reindeer by crushing their testicles without breaking the skin.

Any claim in a video that testicles are being bitten off (removed) in traditional Sami practice is likely to be either an ignorant interpretation of what is shown or a sensationalist attempt to exploit the squeamishness of potential viewers.


Norwegian Animal-Welfare Law

The IPY Oslo Science Conference 2010 included a paper which says the biting method was used but is no longer allowed.

Over the last decades in Norway, the reindeer managers have reduced the number of castrates for several reasons. One was introduced by the Norwegian Animal Welfare Act. Accordingly, castration of reindeer bulls was only allowed with anaesthesia performed by a veterinarian. In the field, only the bloodless method using castrating forceps, e.g. the Burdizzo instrument, can be practised. The spermatic cord and blood-vessels to the testicles together with the sensible nerves are crushed and damaged. This is considered painful, and anaesthesia is required. The procedure is costly and time consuming, and in addition to other reasons, the practice has been reduced. The Sami castration method “gaskit”, was traditionally performed with the teeth, without anaesthesia, and is not allowed any more.

See also Traditional Castration – Still Banned in Norway


Traditional Technique and it's purpose

The best description of the traditional technique I have found so far is from a rather lightweight and unreliable source:

The nomadic Sami reindeer herders of Siberia traditionally half-castrate their male stock for practical reasons that surely must have existed at some point. Half-castration is when you don't actually remove the testicles, but merely pulp them within the scrotum,

The Sami Castrate Reindeer With Their Teeth

As the Huffington Post explains :

The traditional Sami biting technique aims for "half-castration" -- under which the animals become sterile but still produce some of the male hormone testosterone that promotes muscle growth.

"The Challenges of Arctic reindeer Herding" - Arctic Portal Library

In 1732, Carl Linnè, described castration of reindeer: One person keeps the 2.5 years old male in the antlers 14 day before Michaels m[a]ss, while the herder use his teeth to bite across the reindeer balls, and subsequently use his finger to carefully massage the epidermi[s], avoiding to harm the skin.

Note "Carl Linnè" refers to the man now known as Carl Linnaeus


2. Is it possible for a human to bite off a reindeer's testicles?

It is not possible to do this lawfully in Norway.

I suspect that not many scientists have thought this worth constructing a research grant proposal for. In any case I don't have an answer for this additional question. Since it seems the Sami don't attempt this, it is probably irrelevant to the main thrust of your question.

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Still, that does not make it clear whether they just hold the testicles with their teeth (and then cut them with a knife) or whether they actually bite them off. –  nico Jul 20 '13 at 14:09
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@nico: Answer updated. –  RedGrittyBrick Jul 20 '13 at 14:27
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With regards to the second point "2. Is it possible for a human to bite off a reindeer's testicles?" something can be illegal and still possible so you might want to try and rephrase that second or something. With a little bit of research it might be possible to find a veterinary article that mentions the tissue strength so education speculation might be possible as well. –  rjzii Jul 20 '13 at 15:46
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@Sancho It may be true but it doesn't really strengthen the claim. The Sami people have a history that goes back to the first recorded mention of them in 98 CE. Just because doing something has been illegal for a couple years doesn't mean that in the 1900 year history of them that it wasn't done. The answer would be better served by stating that there was no evidence that they bit them off and leaving it at that. –  rjzii Jul 20 '13 at 22:21
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This answer is wrong. The Samis did in use teeth in addition to other tools to cut testicles in the past. The technique is called "gaskit". nordlys.no/nyheter/article6464555.ece The video mentioned in this article is a reconstruction of how they did it: youtu.be/fftnExG-WFg –  Ken Fyrstenberg Jul 25 '13 at 18:31

From a pure physical perspective, it's plausible. There are at least two cases of women removing human testicles just by grabbing them and pulling and at least one case of the woman using her teeth to do so. Human biting forces are up around 1300 N for the molars and 500 for the canines. I have yet to find a study chronicling the tensile strength of reindeer testicles compared to human testicles, but it's probably similar.

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